I’m in an elevator. On the floor in front of me is a pile of shattered plastic. I do my magic time reversal trick, and the shards spring together… into yet another audio log. A voice with a bad Russian accent says, “It breaks my heart that we realized too late that the creatures are blind. Alexis needlessly fell victim to them. Had we just silently walked by the beasts, he would still be alive. I’m sorry for failing you Alexis. For failing us all.”
For failing us all? God, this writing is bad.
The elevator stops and the caged gate clanks open. Oh look, it’s one of those inexplicably glowing messages on the wall. Well, I sure do get a lot of use out of this magic time reversal trick. It’s a good thing that there were no hidden messages or broken tape decks before I got my magic time glove of science. I tap the left bumper and tubes of time energy shoot out of my hand. The message reverts to its legible state: “MOVE SLOWLY! the creatures are BLIND AND REAct to ANY SouNd.”
OK. First of all, who gave the glowing pen to a thirteen-year-old, and why was this child in a Russian mutant-infested lab? Second of all, didn’t you just tell me this, game? Didn’t the audio log already convey this information to me? I get it. There’s going to be a stealth segment now. Why do you feel the need to tell me everything twice?
I walk forward a bit and a message pops onto my screen: “Reverts are blind and only react to noise. Move slowly.”
Welcome to Singularity, the I-swear-we-didn’t-copy-Bioshock sci-fi shooter.
It’s set in Soviet Russia, after a misguided science experiment slash plot to rule the world has gone south. The Russians discovered a new element called E-99 that has special time controlling powers. Containers of E-99 are littered across the facility, and they serve as currency for weapon and time power upgrades.
An hour or two into the game, you discover an apparatus called the TMD, or Time Manipulation Device. You strap this on your hand and use it to send people or certain objects back and forth through time. You can also use it as a gravity gun, ala every other game since Half-Life 2.
Most of the guns are pretty standard fare. There’s the pistol, the assault rifle, the machine gun, the sniper rifle, etc. There were a handful of unique weapons as well. My favorite gun was particularly silly. Your camera followed its bullets in slow motion as you steered them into the helplessly glacial Russians, who then exploded Fallout 3 style while screaming, “Noooooo!” No small vocal feat when your head is turning into gory red jelly.
There are a whole bunch of mutants due to prolonged exposure to radioactivity from E-99. Some look like the necromorphs (gangly zombies) from Dead Space, some can teleport or turn invisible, some are like giant hairy spiders, and others are almost exactly like the tickers from Gears of War (Chihuahua-sized insects who run at you and explode), except that you can’t kick them this time. You also fight lots of Russian soldiers, all of whom only know four or five Russian phrases that they like to repeat to one another over and over again in the middle of gunfights.
I feel a little guilty about hating Singularity. Because the truth is that it’s a competent game. Par for the course. Better than some shooters out there.
The pacing is good. Great, even. There are plenty of weapons and time-control powers, and the game gives them to you frequently enough that it always feels like there’s some new toy to play with. Big gunfights are intermingled with can-you-solve-the-puzzle-you’ve-already-solved-ten-times sequences, and there were a few good old fashioned boss battles thrown in there too.
I haven’t read any reviews of Singularity, since I wanted my review to be pure as virgin snow, but I couldn’t help myself when I saw an interview with Raven’s Creative Director Dan Vondrak on my RSS feed. At one point in the interview, Vondrak says, “I think overall that making a new IP was more challenging that we originally anticipated… There were times when it seemed really gloomy, because it’s so hard to do it when everyone goes, ‘what’s it like?’ And you’re trying to say, ‘well, I don’t know if it’s really like anything.”
This seems like a ridiculous thing to say, because Singularity is fundamentally indebted to the innovations of better games. The problem isn’t that Singularity is a new and unfamiliar sort of thing. The problem is that Singularity is tremendously familiar—most notably to Bioshock, but also to Half-Life 2, Dead Space, Call of Duty 4, Gears of War, Fallout 3, and Uncharted—among others. It hijacks the visual language of its predecessors, and it suffers tremendously by comparison.
The writing is abysmal. The plot is predictable and tiresome. The characters are stereotypical and devoid of personality. The rooms are littered with junk, but it’s just the same phone, the same typewriter, the same Bunsen burner, over and over and over again. There are dozens of notes and audio logs, but they are mind-bogglingly bland and repetitive. Every trapped man (I don’t remember a single female-recorded audio log), be he soldier or scientist, spoke with the same tone, usually just recounting events—“we’ve been in here for weeks. Yesterday, Ivan said that we’re all going to die. I’m sorry for failing you Ivan. For failing us all….” In fact, I think that just about all speech in the game is either expository or directive. If I were going to play the game again, I would do it with a pad and paper so that I could tally every time someone told me that “we’re running out of time,” and yet there’s rarely any sense of urgency.
It frustrates me that good writing is such a minor priority for most video games, but the fact of the matter is that good writing and boring mechanics make for a “failure,” and countless blockbuster games have proven that fun action can more than compensate for brain-dead plots and mediocre dialogue. But I maintain that Singularity was trying to tell a compelling story, and it failed. It was trying to create an interesting environment to explore, and it failed. It left a bread trail of guns and time magic scattered through its halls, and it led me along, but crumbs are unsatisfying! I demand bread, damn it!
I’m giving this game a “fry it.” Not because it’s so bad that if your friend has a copy you should sneak into her house and cook it up with some oil and maybe some potatoes and then put it into her fridge in the hopes that she thinks it’s leftovers and then eats it and gets what’s coming to her for buying such a miserable game. It isn’t that bad. We’ve been over this; there are some good parts! I’m giving it a “fry it” in order that the review score might sufficiently express my distaste. I’m giving Singularity a “fry it” because forget 60 bucks, there really are great games out there—why spend 6-8 hours on this one?